A retirement party is a ritual in our culture and, like any ritual, it often loses its meaning and attendance becomes a shade obligatory, with fairly predictable speeches to be politely sat through before everyone can go home.
Not Barb McCrae’s retirement party.
There were more than 70 people in the curling lounge of the Watson Lake recreation centre, gathered to celebrate a woman who has truly earned the enormous respect and affection shown her that night.
Many heartfelt messages from as far away as Newfoundland and Nova Scotia were read to an audience whose applause demonstrated their hearty agreement with each sentiment expressed.
Words such as “compassionate,”“wise,”“generous,”“dedicated,”“a visionary,”“loving” and “a good friend” were heard in messages and speeches.
Stories were told about Barb, some humorous, some touching, but each warm with praise and appreciation.
Much of what was said related to the impact Barb has had on the children who have been the recipients of her dedication.
Those children who experienced her humour and kindness, who trusted she cared about them, have not forgotten the teacher who worked tirelessly to make a difference in the school and community.
One student, when asked why McCrae had been his favourite teacher sighed, “It’s that hair.”
Another, famously difficult student told her teacher, “You’re OK, but I love Ms. McCrae.”
A teacher got up and told the following story about some boys at the local high school, who were overheard reminiscing about their elementary school days.
“Did I beat you up?” one boy asked another. Told that indeed he had, he moved to another boy, “Did I beat you up, too?”
More questioning revealed he had at one time or another beaten up each boy in the classroom.
“Well,” the kid said. “I’m sorry.”
“So you see, Barb” said her colleague. “All your endless ragging the kids to be more considerate and kinder to each other took some time, but it worked!”
So who is this modest, self-deprecating woman who has come to be held in such high esteem in this community?
Barb grew up in Vancouver, coming to the Yukon ‘for the summer’ of l972.
She got a job, thinking, “Oh, I’ll teach here for a couple of years and then I’ll be licensed for BC and the Yukon.”
Then came marriage and two children, Stephanie and Tavis.
Then came divorce, and a move to Vernon with the kids. There were some difficult years before the job in Watson Lake came up. The decision to move to a small northern community, where she didn’t know anyone, was a tough one, but Barb needed a job.
She gave it a year.
“I wanted to live somewhere where my kids mattered, where I mattered, and Watson Lake turned out to be that place,” said Barb.
“If I had to work full time, and I did, I wanted to work at the school were my kids were.
“The town was a shock at first. Steph wanted to know where the malls were. She couldn’t believe there was a place that didn’t have a mall.”
Barb and her children made friends; they became part of the community, participating in the many events and activities available here.
The town proved to be a good place for the kids to grow up. In a small place, keeping track of the kids is easier—especially important when they are teens; they really can’t get away with much when everyone knows them.
Though both of Barb’s children live in Vancouver now, with families of their own, the relationships they established in the North remain strong.
“I like that Tavis and Steph still keep in touch with the kids they went to school with here; that they stayed friends.”
At the retirement party Barb was asked about her future plans. A move to Whitehorse is first on the agenda. Why Whitehorse?
“The Yukon has become home,” she says. “I couldn’t live in Vancouver again, even though my grandchildren are there. It’s too big, too busy, too much driving around involved in everything you do.”
Whitehorse has the advantage of the airport, providing easy access to her family in the south.
Taking her grandkids on road trips is going to be one of the joys of retirement, as are plans to pursue interests such as photography, reiki, yoga—all the things that take time, lots of free time.
There was some questions about Barb’s quilting efforts, with the emcee of the event predicting that with retirement would come the eventual appellation of ‘master quilter.’
The evening was more than speeches and the reading of laudatory messages; there was a feast of wonderful food brought by the guests, some rousing songs and some dancing.
It was a fun time; a fitting tribute to a woman who insists on an element of play in everything she does.
Two weeks after the retirement party, Barb was in a pensive mood.
“I’m amazed at how hard this is, this leaving. I’m not only leaving a community I care about, but leaving a job I love. I guess after 22 years in this school, I am maybe a bit over-invested in it.
“I’ll be reading something and find myself thinking, ‘Oh, I’d like to try that in the classroom’: I’m not ready to quit, but I know I need to leave now—it’s time.”
It may be time for Barb McCrae to explore other possibilities, and there is no doubt she will be making her warm presence and great energy felt wherever she goes and whatever she does, but for this town there is no right time to lose someone who has given so much and so gladly.
Tor Forsberg is a freelance writer
who lives in Watson Lake.